The History of Inoculation

The long history of inoculation has twists, turns, and unlikely heroes. Here’s the story from Yale University Press:

In England, the medical profession knew about engrafting in the early 18th century as it had been described in papers sent to the Royal Society in London and published in its Philosophical Transactions. It had been observed mostly in Turkey where elderly Greek women equipped only with a rusty needle appeared to have great success immunizing children against smallpox. Their “vaccine” was the smallpox infection itself. This was collected from the pustules of the already infected and preserved in walnut shells. Engrafting involved nothing more than pricking the skin of the child, in the arm or leg or both, and rubbing in the infection. If smallpox “took,” as it invariably did, the patient developed symptoms of the disease that were mostly mild and after two weeks subsided. Reports suggested that it was a miraculous defense against smallpox but the medical profession found it abhorrent and quite incomprehensible.

Their resistance was broken by a very brave aristocratic lady, Mary Wortley Montagu, who saw the Greek women in action when she lived briefly in Istanbul where her husband was ambassador. She had her son and later her daughter “engrafted” with complete success. Royalty was impressed, if the medical profession were mostly hostile. There followed in 1721 a bizarre piece of medical research the like of which would have been unthinkable today: prisoners in Newgate Gaol in London were offered freedom if they would undergo engrafting. All six volunteers survived. Next, some orphans were taken as guinea pigs, and they survived.

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